Measuring time

Now that the holidays are over, how do we greet the months ahead?

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 10:03

Judaism Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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It is common to mark our lives by measuring the passage of time. This is completely natural since we are mortal, and time has become the most precious of all worldly commodities. As we stand at the end of the holiday period at the beginning of the new year, we certainly think of ourselves in terms of time – past, present and future. Yet, we realize that we do not really control our time but rather we are controlled by the passage of time and the events that it fosters upon us. 

 

We spend a great deal of time and energy on measuring time. There is a great industry that constantly renews itself by providing us with mechanisms and interventions whose sole purpose it is to measure the passage of time. I do not wear my wristwatch on the Sabbath and holidays. This is not because of any great piety on my part but rather when I don’t wear my watch, I am much more relaxed and sanguine.

Simply, measuring time creates a pressure on one’s psyche. And, at my stage of life, I enjoy days and hours that have little or no pressure. I have often wondered what the world looked like before watches and other instruments to measure time were invented and popularized. In my fantasy, I think that life was probably much calmer and less harried then it is currently when the measurement of time by all possible technological means is ubiquitous.

 

It is interesting to note that in Jewish law and tradition there is no indication of the measurement of time by mechanical means. Sunrise and sunset were determined by human observation. The length of a day and the number of days in a month were always subject to human calculations, with a rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic. Today, we measure all astronomical events, upon which many matters of Jewish law depend, by an extremely accurate measurement of time in terms of minutes, hours and even seconds. In earlier times, establishing the advent of the new moon and the beginning of a new month, the rabbis employed astronomical calculations to try to make the Jewish calendar conform as accurately as possible with the true astronomical passage of time.

 

Nevertheless, the rabbis never negated the necessity for actual human witnesses, observing with their own eyes, the so-called birth and appearance of the new moon that would signal the end and the beginning of the month. The Talmud even allows for human error in the calculation of the time when the new moon and new month should be declared. In short, it seems obvious that the rabbis did not expect perfection and unswerving accuracy when it came to the matter of measuring time. It is this respect for and tolerance of the power of the passage of time that is often missing in dealing with the watches and other instruments that are meant to exactly measure time.

 

Some have spent a great deal of money to purchase what is purported to be the most accurate measurement of time that ever existed. What benefit that atomic clock brought to its owners or to the family in whose home it was installed never has been clear to me. But apparently there is a drive within us to control time and if we can achieve perfect accuracy in measuring time, then we have a feeling that we are controlling the passage of time. 

 

Yet this fascination with measuring the passage of time runs counter to another basic human emotion, that of optimism and good cheer. When we look at our clocks at the end of the day and realize that another set of hours of our lifetime is gone, that can be a depressing experience. Our great teacher Moshe taught us that we had to count the number our days in order to acquire a heart of wisdom and understanding. The rabbis comment that our father Abraham brought with him all his days to the end of his life because of his positive nature and vast influence. So, as we prepare to greet the winter months, I hope that all of us can also look back and treasure the year that has passed.





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